Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Guttural Gasps Of Gloom

The real obstacle to political reconciliation in Nepal is becoming ever more visible in the incessant whining that passes for news and analyses in the Indian media these days.
By concocting a second “agreement” between the Seven-Party Alliance and Maoist rebels in New Delhi this month, the anti-monarchist wing of the Indian establishment had hoped to inflict a decisive blow on King Gyanendra’s regime.
For some reason, the joint statement embodying New Delhi’s message never materialized. It looks like the interlocutors on both sides still cannot fathom the breach that still divides them. In India, the search for the spoiler has zeroed in on the United States.
Despite the overall bonhomie in the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s visit earlier this month, the Indians remain infuriated by the firmness with which Washington has positioned itself against the SPA-Maoist alliance.
A report the other day on an Indian webzine, suggesting that Washington was about to lift its arms embargo on the Royal Nepalese Army, has been roundly denied by the American Embassy in New Delhi.
On the fact of it, the story was dubious; it relied purely on Indian officials who lacked the conviction to go on the record on such a sensitive issue. The American denial therefore may not deter further Indian conjectures.
Judging from official American pronouncements over the months, Washington might be more tolerant of the Maoists if they established their democratic credentials. For the Americans, that would mean a general and comprehensive disarmament before unqualified adherence to multiparty politics.
To be sure, the rebels have been making noises on the latter; on the former, they demand international supervision. Superficially, that stand can be read as an unwillingness to trust the royal regime. Deeper down, international supervision is a nice way of saying no, especially in view of China’s opposition to any direct external role in resolving Nepal’s conflict.
The Indians, too, would like to see the Maoists shun violence and join the political mainstream -- but for a different reason. The taming of the Nepalese Maoists would be an important component of any Indian strategy to quell the flames of ultra-leftist violence at home before it is too late.
New Delhi appeared to have made some headway by extracting an explicit pledge from Nepalese Maoist supremo Prachanda that his “People’s War” was confined to the kingdom.
By reaffirming Beijing’s traditional backing for the monarchy, while appealing for broader political reconciliation, Chinese State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan frustrated India’s designs. It is no accident that Indian newspapers have stepped up their defamation campaign against the monarchy, this time with a special focus on belittling Crown Prince Paras’ visit to Europe.
For some collective psychological reason, traceable perhaps to their humiliating defeat in the 1962 border war, the Indians don’t seem capable of looking straight into Chinese eyes to express displeasure. In this instance, too, they have reverted to the circuitous route Pakistan and the United States have provided.
So when U.S.-Indian relations are brought up, “natural allies” and “synergies” become buzzwords. When the United States is referred to in terms of Nepal’s conflict, the Indians bring up Washington’s darker shades through the adjectival forms of proper nouns like “Guantanamo Bay” and “Abu Ghraib.”
With Nepal struggling to break free from India’s stranglehold, the gasps and groans are becoming louder on the Indian side.

Monday, March 27, 2006

‘Gen. Grandson’ & Grandstanding

One can’t miss the profound irony when Pashupati Sumshere Jang Bahadur Rana and Surya Bahadur Thapa use almost the same language in lampooning the government. The two “royalist” leaders, bitter adversaries during the Panchayat decades, see Vice-Chairman Tulsi Giri and Home Minister Kamal Thapa as the principal threat to Nepal.
Rana, head of the rump Rastriya Prajatantra Party, has plenty of reasons to lambaste Home Minister Kamal Thapa. After all, Thapa, once appointed to the cabinet, broke away from the RPP with a sizable portion. The prerogatives and patronage of power might enable Thapa to lead his party to victory in the upcoming parliamentary polls. (Provided, of course, the mainstream parties scrupulously stick to their boycott pledge by not fielding any independent candidates.)
If the multiparty Panchayat system King Gyanendra’s critics say the palace is bent on introducing, who better than Kamal Thapa to be its official face. Dr. Giri offers another potent symbolism; he was the principal aide to King Mahendra when the palace introduced the non-party version of the polity.
What does all this have to say about Rana, though? As Marich Man Singh Shrestha and Navaraj Subedi might point out, it was men like Surya Bahadur Thapa and Rana who were the real enemies of the Panchayat system. The first masqueraded as the liberal face of the partyless system but in actuality advanced the agenda of a particular group of non-Nepalis. Rana, on the other hand, read the palace’s mind and joined the anti-Surya Bahadur Thapa bandwagon to reach power. In the end, Surya Bahadur Thapa and Rana joined hands to bring down the Panchayat system.
Surya Bahadur Thapa’s antecedents, loyalties and motives need not be recounted. Rana, however, merits greater scrutiny, not least because of his matrimonial ties to and financial interests in India. “Gen. Grandson,” as he is known, might have been running Nepal today as hereditary prime minister, had Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru honored his pledges of support to Mohan Sumshere Rana. Pashupati-raja, the grandson of Mohan Sumshere, earned the title of general while he was still an embryo purely on account of biological and sociological interventions.
Despite the childhood scars inflicted by the death of his father, Gen. Bijay Sumshere Rana, Nepal’s ambassador to India, apparently by electrocution in his bathtub, Pashupati-raja went on to an illustrious academic career at Oxford. Back home, he helped bring out The Nepalese Perspective, the Panchayat system’s first serious attempt in English to influence local and foreign opinion.
Legend has it that Rana learned the Nepali alphabet after returning from Oxford. If that is true, one cannot but commend even more his mastery of the language. Rana went on to establish the Center for Development and Administration, one of early instruments the Panchayat used to draw Ph.D.s into the polity. As Education Minister during the 1979 student strikes, Rana was forced to resign.
Behind this sustained record of achievement, could there have been a murkier side? Something buried deep in the recesses of the mind that had to do with his failure to maintain the political lineage of his ancestors? Today, for all practical purposes, the Shahs and Ranas look one and the same. The finer distinctions have much to do with recent upheavals. The scions of Chandra Sumshere Rana – great grandfather of Pashupati-raja – do not consider with particular fondness the descendants of Juddha Sumshere Rana – the great grandfather of King Gyanendra. All because of issues relating to the social status of Juddha Sumshere’s mother in caste-conscious Nepal.
Having won all five adult-franchise-based elections Nepal has held, Pashupati-raja was on the road to winning the coveted premiership democratically. Instead, Juddha Sumshere’s ghost returned to mock him in the form of the palace’s February 1, 2005 takeover.
However, there is a more crucial strand to this story that remains hidden. Pashupati-raja is also the father of Devyani Rana, the woman we are told Crown Prince (King?) Dipendra was so madly in love with. The official version of the palace massacre of June 1, 2001 still maintains that Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down King Birendra and every other member of his family, together with half a dozen other royals, before committing suicide – all because Queen Aishwarya refused to let him marry Devyani.
Devyani Rana conveniently left Kathmandu, at a time of day/night when hardly any air traffic had been scheduled. She refused to depose before the investigation committee apart from conveying a few sobs. King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras continue to be the targets of rumor, hearsay and innuendo. But Devyani is free to fly into and out of Kathmandu at will largely unnoticed by the public.
Might Pashupati-raja have some interesting insights into that whole tragedy? At the very least, he could probably encourage a forthright account from daughter Devyani on what transpired during those frantic cellphone calls before Crown Prince Dipendra supposedly embarked on his murderous spree.
That he can accuse Dr. Tulsi Giri and Home Minister Kamal Thapa of posing a grave threat to Nepal certainly says much about the smoke-screen that passes for politics these days.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Singular Comrade Singled Out?

The royal regime seems to hold a huge grudge against Madhav Kumar Nepal. Nepalis were expecting to see the perennial premier in waiting freed from house arrest. Instead the mainstream’s comrade in chief has been whisked away to an undisclosed location by the Armed Police Force that was guarding him.
Home Minister Kamal Thapa won’t let us in on anything more than that you-can’t-misuse-communication-equipment-while-under-house-arrest bit. Was Makune exchanging seditious emails with his brothers? Why is the royal regime according Makune this, shall we say, special treatment?
Undoubtedly, the man has an extraordinary record of accomplishment. He emerges almost out of nowhere to help write the new democratic constitution in 1990. Then his boss, Madan Bhandari – who himself emerges from obscurity to lead the then Marxist-Leninists – offers only critical support to the statute.
A couple of years later, Madan Bhandari, along with an associate, dies in a mysterious car accident. Makune, an indirectly chosen member of the upper house of the legislature, is catapulted to the top. Few expect him to last long amid the bevy of more formidable comrades.
Makune and his allies spew fire on the streets about exposing the conspiracy behind Bhandari’s death. The protests help him consolidate his hold on the party. Once in government, as deputy premier of a minority government, Makune forgets all about the Dasdhunga accident.
Moreover, instead of revising the Tanakpur water resources accord with India, which Bhandari had led a crusade against, Makune ends up widening the net by agreeing to the Mahakali Package.
Makune’s boss, Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikari, confides in close associates that he feels freer discussing important matters with Nepali Congress leaders than with his own “boys.”
Adhikari dies while campaigning for the UML. Following the elections, the party finds itself on the opposition benches. Makune feels no need to fill the UML chairman’s post, arguing that Adhikari was a special case.
He spearheads the Lauda Air corruption scandal against Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, until it emerges that the comrades are neck-deep in similar shady practices with China Southwest Airlines.
After the Narayanhity massacre, Makune advises King Gyanendra to form a high-power investigation committee to probe the tragedy. When the king does, he refuses to serve on the committee.
Having played his part in the ousting of Koirala, Makune not only hails Sher Bahadur Deuba’s rise; a few weeks later the UML takes out a procession in support of Deuba’s land-reform program.
He travels to Silguri for a secret meeting with Maoist supremo Prachanda, discovering that the leaders of almost all the mainstream communist factions have been invited. Prachanda later accuses him of divulging full details of those discussions to King Gyanendra. Makune responds by fully endorsing Deuba’s decision to mobilize the army against the rebels.
When time comes for extending the state of emergency, under which the army has been deployed, Makune wants concessions from Deuba. It’s couched in terms aimed at strengthening the supremacy of parliament over an assertive palace under King Gyanendra. Deuba feels the comrades want a permanent share in power through a national government.
Falling out with Koirala, following long-simmering rivalry, Deuba dissolves parliament. Koirala expels Deuba from the party. Makune welcomes the elections, saying the prime minister has full prerogative to call one.
Makune seeks to project an aura of political consistency, citing the UML’s opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision to restore the house dissolved by premier Adhikari in 1995. The real reason turns out to be his calculation that, in the midst of a divided Nepali Congress, the UML would win a majority.
When King Gyanendra fires Deuba on October 4, 2002 for his failure to hold the elections on time, the entire mainstream heaves a sigh of relief. Makune seemed the most enthused. Only when Lokendra Bahadur Chand becomes prime minister days later does the mainstream see a regressive palace.
The anti-palace campaign heats up. Makune promises to encircle Narayanhity with 100,000 people. Considering the UML’s organizational abilities, that was not a threat to be taken lightly. The U.S. State Department’s Christina Rocca lands in Kathmandu and meets Makune and other agitators. Suddenly the UML remembers the urgency of holding organizational elections in Janakpur.
Our wily Prachanda announces a ceasefire and begins peace talks with the palace-appointed government. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai is confident of leading a new coalition in power. If Krishna Prasad Bhattarai could do so in 1990, surely the Maoists have precedent on their side.
But Washington slaps the terrorist tag on the Maoists. The peace talks hit a roadblock. Chand’s days are numbered. Makune is the leading candidate to succeed him. Surya Bahadur Thapa, despite his troubled ties with Nirmal Niwas during the Panchayat years, freshly returned from a visit to India upstages Makune.
A war of words breaks out within the UML. Khadga Prasad Oli, who headed the dissidents at the Janakpur conference, is cozying up to the palace. Something big is about to happen in the UML.
Something does. Amar Lama, the driver of the land-cruiser in which Madan Bhandari and Jeev Raj Ashrit died, is about to make an explosive revelation. He is abducted and killed before he could get to the reporters.
The peace talks, which had been sputtering on, formally collapse. Surya Bahadur Thapa’s days seem numbered. But he seems to have some supernatural gift for survival.
Prachanda, meanwhile, is still on Makune’s mind. He heads to Lucknow for a meeting with the Maoists. Makune returns home saying Prachanda is willing to restart peace talks if they are held with an all-party government. A government informant is in the UML entourage. The only real news to emerge from the Lucknow talks: Dr. Baburam Bhattarai concedes that the Maoists can never come to power as long as they continue attacking India.
Dr. Bhattarai regains a fondness for his Jawahar Lal Nehru University days. Makune becomes our latter-day Dr. Keshar Jang Rayamajhi, the royal communist. Deuba already has been cast as Dr. Tulsi Giri. (Little did Nepalis know that the original men were not yet done on the political stage.)
Finally, months later, Surya Bahadur Thapa resigns. The mainstream alliance leaders can’t decide whether to meet King Gyanendra. When the leaders finally do, they cannot come up with a consensus candidate.
Makune reminds Koirala of the alliance’s earlier undertaking. The Nepali Congress chief says events have overtaken that commitment. Suspecting mischief, Makune decides to file a formal application with the palace secretariat. He goes to Koirala and the other leaders for their signature.
They smooth-talk him into filing the petition on his own behalf. Only later does Makune realize he has joined a long list of wackos and nut cases seeking the premiership. The country, meanwhile, is left without a government for almost a month.
An infuriated Makune ditches Koirala and Co. to back Deuba’s new coalition. With the reappointment of Deuba, he argues, the royal regression has been half corrected. He selects a safe contingent of ministers. The UML chief speaks from both sides of his mouth. His ministers are clueless about cabinet decisions.
The top palace nominee in the cabinet, Dr. Mohammed Mohsin, warns that the kingdom may soon enter a more authoritarian phase. Makune still can’t decide whether to remain in or leave the Deuba coalition.
King Gyanendra strikes on Feb.1, 2005. Makune is the last top leader to be freed from detention. He visits India like most of the other leaders. He sets himself apart, though, by using a forum there to blast the Chinese government for supporting the palace.
Back home he threatens to take members of the royal regime and the military to the International Criminal Court. He doesn’t bother to explain through which route because no one asks.
The political discourse becomes ambiguous. Loktantra replaces prajatantra as the Nepali equivalent of democracy. Then comes the term “total democracy.” Does this mean republicanism? Then the 12-point pact between the mainstream parties and the Maoists is unveiled.
Makune tries to take full credit for it. He argues that the accord was the outcome of a long process he had initiated with Prachanda in Silguri and Lucknow, among other places. Makune seemed to have rehabilitated himself among the Maoists. Could this singular record explain why the royal regime is singling him out?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Colorful Contortions

The contortions of Nepalese politics can often be traced to the colorfulness of some of its characters. Take Bamdev Gautam, for instance. A firebrand orator, he has that rare ability to go into vocal hibernation.
The one-time deputy general secretary of Nepal Communist Party (Unified Marxist-Leninist) is today one of the leading proponents of a closer alliance between the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels. Having evaded the royal government’s last crackdown, Gautam emerged in New Delhi to fine-tune last November’s 12-point pact between the Seven-Party Alliance and Maoists.
After the second memorandum of understanding was made public, Gautam has set for himself a higher goal. He insists that a joint appeal for peaceful protests from the eight parties, perhaps even a fresh rebel ceasefire, could come as early as next month. The final assault on the royal regime is imminent?
What makes Gautam so confident of the triumph of the bipolarization of Nepal’s three-way conflict? His personal contacts with the rebels, perhaps?
Gautam is best remembered for having catapulted Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who had 11 of the 19 MPs of the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party, to the premiership in 1997. He inaugurated the process that would fully and formally rehabilitate the ex-panchas.
As Chand’s deputy and home minister, Gautam had struck a tacit understanding with the Maoists, who were in the process of consolidating their hold of the hinterland. The rebels allowed the UML to sweep the local elections.
Gautam’s accomplishment fueled his political ambitions. He broke away from the UML, citing policy and procedural disputes that began with the controversial Mahakali River treaty with India. Gautam took with him a sizeable chunk of comrades to form the Marxist-Leninists and propped up Girija Prasad Koirala’s coalition government. He fell out with the grand old man and focused on rebuilding the party for the next elections. Except that he underestimated the motives and means of his erstwhile UML colleagues, who Koirala had reached out to. Not a single ML member was elected to parliament.
After the blame game subsided, Gautam did the best thing he could. He returned to the UML in the interest of communist unity. All those differences he had cited earlier, well, flowed away in the Mahakali.
After King Gyanendra dismissed the elected government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on October 4, 2002, Gautam appeared ready to give the monarch the benefit of the doubt. As UML leaders stepped up criticism of the palace, Gautam preached moderation. Many saw him as a potential palace-appointed premier.
When UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal ditched the agitating opposition alliance to join Deuba’s government, the top comrade blocked Gautam from leading the party contingent. The UML put up Bharat Mohan Adhikary for deputy premier. When King Gyanendra dismissed Deuba a second time and took over full control on February 1, 2005, appointing himself head of government, Bamdev was infuriated.
Months later, he became the first mainstream commie to travel to the Maoist heartland in western Nepal to strike a deal with the Maoists to inaugurate a democratic republic. The UML hadn’t fully reverted to republicanism yet. So Gautam came in for considerable criticism from his comrades. When the party finally concluded that the palace considered the UML more of a threat than the Maoists, Gautam stood vindicated. Among the most inveterate critics of India, Gautam is now explaining the wisdom of holding talks in New Delhi.
Maila Baje recalls an interview Nepal Television’s Bijay Kumar did with Gautam in 1997 after he cobbled together the Chand-led coalition. The pugnacious Kumar asked the deputy premier whether he had ever expected to reach that post. The question kind of stung Gautam. He told Kumar that he expected to become premier the moment he saw, from the audience gallery in the Rastriya Panchayat, the prime minister answer members’ questions.
The sharp Kumar caught Gautam right there. Entry into the unicameral legislature was restricted to bearers of official passes or individuals sanctioned by members. As someone who was on the run from the partyless regime’s administration, how did Gautam manage to get into the chamber? We’re still waiting for the answer.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Conflicts In Cusecs

With India, China and the United States now separately pressing the urgency of political reconciliation to pull Nepal back from the precipice, Maila Baje thought he could finally exhale some exhilaration. Barely half a lung went into motion when an Indian newspaper headline beckoned: “Future conflicts might revolve around water.”
For someone who grew up knowing how water has been more of a curse to the kingdom, an apocryphal vision became inevitable. So one read on. It was utter disappointment.
The headline was taken from the tail-end of the third paragraph consisting of a single sentence attributed to a university professor. No background, context or perspective.
In Nepal’s national vocabulary, the word that almost always follows water is India.
Governments have been graded by the generosity with which they have surrendered Nepalese rivers to India.
The world’s largest democracy, for its part, was never interested in buying Nepal’s hydroelectricity. At least not for the exorbitant cost per unit.
In a sense, the Indians have a point. Power projects are costly in Nepal partly because of the topography. Toss in corruption and project delays arising from political posturing and costs can go skyrocketing.
Why pay World Bank-dictated prices when you can impose any price on that great vassal Bhutan?
To be sure, a little finesse might have brought in Indian investment with the attendant cost controls. Of course, getting the Indians to pay anything in such a scenario would be another challenge.
So geography continues dictate things. Liquid that could have fueled endless roaring turbines flow south with full freedom, leaving Nepalis with nothing to show for it. In their furious moments, Nepalis thought they could open the floodgates and inundate adjoining Indian states. In reality, it’s Nepali land that is submerged by the dams India regularly constructs.
Where matters seem a bit complicated, the Indians can cleverly use ruses. After parliament ratified the Mahakali Treaty in 1996, the then water resources minister exulted how the sun was going to rise from the west.
One comrade across the aisle suggested that Nepal could finally uplink all those megawatts to satellites and cater to the highest bidders.
The “Indian stooge” tag stuck on Girija Prasad Koirala and his Nepali Congress whereas the commies and royalists in parliament were more energetic backers of the Mahakali project.
The detailed project report was supposed to have been published within six months. A decade later, Nepalis haven’t received a trickle of information. Instead, they are enduring seven-hour blackouts a day and dry taps for most of the year.
Meanwhile, the hills of Uttar Pradesh state on the Nepal border became part of a separate Uttaranchal state. Inter-state rivalry provided New Delhi with the perfect excuse for inaction.
Nepal ended up virtually renouncing future claims to additional cusecs of water. For India, the ambitious river-linking project, conceived decades earlier, was ready for implementation.
To be fair, what might have happened if all our rivers flowed north? Get real, you might say. Amid such engineering feats as the rearranging of triple gorges, there is nothing that should stop our thirsty northern neighbors from prospecting our principal natural resource. The headline is scary, isn’t it?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shooting The Messengers

Judging from Maoist supremo Prachanda’s scathing response to the serious allegations leveled by central committee members Rabindra Shrestha and Anukul (Mani Thapa), rifts in rebel ranks seem to be real.
Issuing a hard-hitting statement, Prachanda expelled the duo from the party, saying they had turned into “traitors and counterrevolutionaries and joined the autocratic monarchy.” No trace of any eagerness to “re-educate” the two men.
Now the dissidents and the leadership both accuse each other of being royalists, an accusation that has driven much of the acrimony in Nepal’s fractious communist movement.
Echoing much of Prachanda’s rancor, Maoist chief ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai accused Shrestha of having indulged in suspicious anti-party behavior while in custody. (Shrestha, considered the chief Maoist organizer in Kathmandu valley, was arrested in November 2001 and released two years later, after the second abortive peace process began.)
Recounting his own serious rifts with Prachanda last year, Dr. Bhattarai disclosed how Rabindra and Anukul stood on opposite sides fanning the flames of discord.
Maoist military commander Pasang joined in the criticism by endorsing Prachanda’s and Dr. Bhattarai’s multicount indictments of the duo. Pasang’s involvement seemed aimed more at quelling rumors that Shrestha and Anukul enjoyed the backing of an influential section of the “People’s Liberation Army.”
The questions raised by the Maoist leadership are not without merit. Could it be mere coincidence that Shrestha and Anukul came out with their appeal a day after Home Minister Kamal Thapa announced amnesty to all Maoists who surrendered and also to offer big rewards if they also brought weapons with them?
Moreover, why did the duo provoke such a nasty exchange in public at a time when the mainstream opposition parties and Maoists were busy trying to reinforce their anti-palace campaign? They were, after all, asked to present their grievances through “proper channels”.
All the same, the leadership’s vitriolic response cannot obscure the fact that neither Prachanda nor Dr. Bhattarai considered it fit to rebut the substance of the dissidents’ charges.
Apart from identifying instances of ideological deviation, the duo accused Prachanda of protecting his son from frontline duty. They slammed Dr. Bhattarai for providing his daughter with “bourgeoise” education instead of enlisting her in the army.
Shrestha and Anukul excoriated the two leaders for staying abroad for much of the decade-long “people’s war.”
These questions have vexed Nepalis of all political persuasions for quite some time. When Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai buried their differences with remarkable alacrity last year, they didn’t win points for their gift for reconciliation. Most Nepalis are still clueless about the terms under which they patched up to forge an anti-palace alliance with the mainstream opposition parties.

What next?
In an interview with the BBC Nepali Service, Shrestha said he would continue to fight against the leadership from within the party. “If our appeals are not heard, we may be forced to look for an alternative,” he added.
Prachanda’s expulsion order makes the first option untenable. Less clear is whether his shoot-the-messenger approach will work.
Whether Shrestha and Anukul can form a splinter group capable of carrying out their self-proclaimed cultural revolution would depend on how much support they have within the party.
It may be unwise, though, to count them out just yet. Their litany of grievances – and the leadership’s refusal to address them -- has given others an ideological cover for insurrection. And for the truly war-weary, the government’s amnesty-with-cash offer isn’t all that bad.

Monday, March 13, 2006

It’s Getting Personal, Comrades

Word is in that two Maoist central committee members have publicly criticized rebel supremo Prachanda and his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, for showcasing “non-proletarian tendencies.” Now that’s tantamount to accusing Girija Prasad Koirala of demanding the reinstatement of the Rastriya Panchayat dissolved in 1990 as part of the movement to restore full democracy.
In a statement, Rabindra Shrestha and Comrade Anukul, on behalf of the obscure “New Cultural Revolutionary Group,” have explained how ideological, political, organizational, military and cultural deflections have taken place among the two top leaders of the party.
Now, it would be premature to pronounce this development as a precursor to a formal split in a movement that almost imploded last year. For one thing, the signatories are totally capable of denying ever having made such a statement and of blaming the Royal Nepalese Army for concocting another “artless drama.” Moreover, Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai can obfuscate on how the latest “misunderstanding” within the ranks had been resolved.
If the statement stands, then it would have serious implications for the rebel movement. Rabindra Shrestha, one may recall, was the man who was holding talks in November 2000 in the chambers of then-Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel while another act was being unfolded at the behest of Information and Communication Minister Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta.
Gupta, supposedly acting on the instructions of then-Prime Minister Prasad Koirala, had produced two Maoist detainees – Dinesh Sharma and Dina Nath Gautam before TV cameras to denounce the Maoist “people’s war” before setting them free.
An infuriated Prachanda pulled out of the nascent peace process. A few hours later, the two detainees faxed reporters a statement recanting their denunciation of the Maoist leadership, saying it was extracted through state coercion.
Rabindra Shrestha was also the man who predicted, in successive articles in Maoist publications, how the Maoists were fully prepared to take on the military. His argument: the rebels were fighting for a cause while the soldiers were fighting for their careers.
Shrestha and Anukul cite Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai’s war of words, the rebel supremo’s statement that his party would accept any outcome of constituent assembly elections, including one in favor of Panchayat-style active monarchy, as evidence of their deviant tendencies.
However, it’s the personal allegations that are the most damning. Shrestha and Anukul (believed to be central committee member Mani Thapa) accused Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai of living in the safety of “foreign land” for eight out of ten years of the “people’s war.”
Furthermore, they lashed out at the top leaders for not sending their children in the frontline of the rebellion, contrary to what Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai have long maintained.
The signatories have urged the “new generation” within the party to carry out “revolution within revolution” in a new way. Do Prakash Dahal and Manasi Bhattarai have any thoughts on the matter?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Gripping Giri-isms

Tulsi Giri, vice-chairman of the council of ministers, has once again stirred Nepal’s political waters. This time, King Gyanendra’s principal deputy has mounted a frontal assault on the conventional wisdom that the kingdom’s political stalemate could be solved if the monarch and the mainstream parties reconcile.
In Dr. Giri’s opinion, such a conclusion is not only erroneous; it is dangerously wrongheaded. Terrorism and the political crisis, he told a Kathmandu audience the other day, are different things that should be dealt with separately. The remark touched off a new spiral of criticism, which Dr. Giri is accustomed to. It takes great political conviction, after all, to embark on a controversial enterprise accepting a demotion. (Dr. Giri had served as chairman of the council of ministers way back during King Mahendra’s reign.)
The vice-chairman’s latest remark came in handy for former premier Surya Bahadur Thapa, chief of the one-year-old Rastriya Janashakti Party (RJP). Thapa must have been laboring to come up with something to say at the anniversary function. Frankly, the only achievement of the RJP has been to prevent deputy chief Prakash Chandra Lohani from leaving the organization. Thapa got to devote the anniversary function to excoriating Dr. Giri.
Critics of the royal regime must have been doubly infuriated by the forum Dr. Giri used to convey his thoughts: the Federation of National Journalists, which was formed by scribes supporting the royal takeover.
Before dismissing Dr. Giri’s assertion as another manifestation of senility, however, consider the substance of his argument. “The problem of terrorism existed even during the 1996-2005 period when the King and the political parties were together,” he said. Of course, members of the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) don’t want to hear that when they are joining hands with very group of people they had designated terrorists.
Dr. Giri’s remarks came a day after Donald Camp, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, urged King Gyanendra to reach out to political parties and restore multiparty democracy. Indeed, the vice-chairman wasn’t too impressed with what Camp had to say. President Bush didn’t need to dispatch an emissary to repeat a slight variation of the 25-word mantra he had uttered in New Delhi.
Our vice-chairman may have rebuffed the first part of Camp’s plea. He has long been eager to implement what happened to be Camp’s second. Dr. Giri stated that the royal government was firm on holding parliamentary elections. Of course, Camp has already delegitimized any election conducted without the SPA’s participation.
Dr. Giri enunciated another imperative. Only parliament has the right to interpret the controversial Article 127 of the Constitution, on which King Gyanendra has based his political assertiveness since October 4, 2002.
Now, the right honorable justices of the Supreme Court must be seething at Dr. Giri encroachment on judicial jurisdiction. Maybe this could goad them into emphasizing the urgency of enshrining a Constitutional Court in a new/amended constitution to rule on such politically charged matters.
With King Gyanendra taking turns meeting with royalist politicians and heads of the security agencies, an official schedule of the parliamentary elections may be expected any day.
Another election with a 20 percent turnout? You bet. At least that legislature would be livelier than the one the SPA wants to bring back on life support.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Making Headlines

The world’s largest democracy boasts one of the freest presses on the planet. No news in that. Of course, the real picture is less enjoyable.
The Indian media is largely free at home. How newspapers and television channels serve as government propaganda tools – even instruments for subversion – is becoming clearer.
Nepal has been on the receiving end for a long time.
One Indian TV channel has been accused of trying to fake a Maoist attack on an army camp during the municipal elections last month.
Few Nepalis might have forgotten how another TV channel proudly identified a Nepali passenger as one of the hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight originating from Kathmandu in December 1999.
Unfazed by the criticism, the channel’s follow-up story was on how lax security was at Tribhuvan International Airport. The reporter breezed past all levels of security, filming his feat with a hidden camera. The problem was with what the reporter didn’t report. He flashed his press pass, brandished his ticket at all points before boarding the plane to Delhi. Of course, he could move around so freely.
Then there are subtle ways in which propaganda is foisted on the gullible as news. Take this Indian reporter based in Kathmandu. The scribe produces a prodigious amount of copy each day, primarily for a widely subscribed news and feature service.
To be fair, the stories do provide a refreshing contrast to the staid and supercilious copy other Kathmandu-based Indian scribes are known for.
However, the reporter in question is also a full-time correspondent for Calcutta- and Hyderabad-based newspapers. When this scribe offers an angle to a story, the two daily newspapers carry them prominently. The larger Indian dailies carry the news-service version of the copy, which also runs in European- and US-based publications and websites.
In effect, one reporter can create a Lincoln Steffens-style news wave that distorts what actually may have happened in Nepal. Take the recent discrepancy in the casualty figures following the Maoist attack in Ilam. This reporter did a story on the basis of a Nepalese daily’s reporting, which itself was based on clearly flawed sourcing.
Accuracy, balance and consistency were still cardinal rules of reporting the last time Maila Baje checked – even amid the concentration of journalistic power in one reporter.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Feudalism Feuds

“Feudalism is the main source of Nepal’s problems.” The headline was unremarkable in its uniqueness. A split-second later, after the customary colon, the attribution raised the news value several notches.
No, this wasn’t a leader of one of the assortment of communist splinter groups defying King Gyanendra through some bold ideological affirmation. Nor was it a rant from a newly embittered ex-constitutional monarchist from one of the Nepali Congress factions.
The declaration came from Kenichi Ohashi, country director of the World Bank, in a speech to the Management Association for Nepal.
Emanating from a citizen of another Asian monarchy, one’s interest was instantly aroused. Feudalism in Nepal, after all, has long been a pejorative attached to the king.
Considering the lengths to which Ohashi had gone a couple of years ago to defend the palace-appointed government’s decision to raise fuel prices, the statement triggered additional curiosity. One recalls how irate students and activists criticized Ohashi’s overstepping of diplomatic protocol. Since he rode a blue-plated car, he was automatically expected to maintain the deference of, say, the Japanese ambassador of the day. (One good reason for the government not to be so liberal in issuing CD plates.)
The mind then wandered a few months further back. The World Bank’s vice-president for South Asia, Mieko Nishimizu, criticized the massive corruption and waste inflicted on Nepal by successive governments (when Sher Bahadur Deuba was still the elected prime minister, to be precise). A leading poet penned stanzas eulogizing the lady – yes, a Japanese national -- for showing Nepali leaders a mirror to their faces.
With Tokyo having become increasingly vocal in its anxiety over the lack of democracy in Nepal these days, could Ohashi’s remark carry added portents?
A few sentences later, it emerged that the feudalism Ohashi was talking about was far broader than the accepted definition in Nepal. As the prime multilateral lender, the World Bank rep was intent on ensuring that policy makers did not defer development as they struggled to sort out their politics.

Lords And Vassals
Etymologically, “feudalism” was coined in the seventeenth century, based on the Late Latin feudum, which, in turn, was borrowed from Germanic *fehu. That term was commonly used in the Middle Ages for a fief, land held under certain obligations by feodati.
In essence, lords granted land to vassals in exchange for military service. Since land was limited, there came a point when lords could no longer provide more territory to elicit unflinching cooperation from vassals.
Nor could the lords enforce the right to reassign land, which had become de facto hereditary property. As such, feudalism lost its luster as a working relationship.
Over time, economies, hitherto mostly agrarian, transformed into ones based on money. Land ownership still determined wealth and status, but liquid assets carried increasingly greater value. Seeking a way to become independent of nobles, especially for military support, the kings eventually created standing national armies.
In Nepal, cries against feudalism come out prominently during struggles for democracy. This is understandable considering how radicals during the French revolution successfully used the term to denigrate the monarchy. This selective articulation, however, could distort the political discourse in a country where lordship and vassaldom are endemic in different forms.
For Nepal, the more relevant aspect of the history of feudalism is this: The king was a lord who loaned fiefs to aristocrats, who were his vassals. The aristocrats, on the other hand, were lords to their own vassals, the peasants who worked on their land. What Ohashi and the World Bank seem to be getting at is this element of Nepalese society – whether Nepal remains a monarchy or becomes a republic.
During the apogee of multiparty democracy, from 1990 to 2002, Khum Bahadur Khadka of the Nepali Congress always had at least two dozen legislators in his pocket. After creating and destroying successive governments, Khadka almost single-handedly created Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Nepali Congress (Democratic) amid widening rifts in the parent party. The arrangement couldn’t work because Khadka thought – not incorrectly – he was the lord and Deuba the vassal.
Perched at another level were Nepali Congress leader Chiranjibi Wagle and his son Devendra. A proletarian like Maoist ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai could not resist calling Wagle “Khursani Maila,” a pejorative that had come to describe how a hand-to-mouth chilli trader could end up running a vast patronage plant and enriching his family.
If Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Dr. Bhattarai eventually take over Nepal, they will probably face Hamas’ dilemma: moderating themselves enough to continue receiving the international assistance their realm cannot do without.
Ohashi probably wants to make sure a wayward Prakash Dahal and Manasi Bhattarai don’t end up wrecking the People’s Republic of Nepal their fathers have spilled so much blood for.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Decoding The Bush-Man Message

“In Nepal, we agreed that the Maoists should abandon violence, and that the King should reach out to the political parties to restore democratic institutions.”

At one level, the three principal political players in Nepal must have been buoyed by that sentence coming from arguably the most powerful man on the planet.
At another, U.S. President George W. Bush wasted 25 words on a sentiment Nepalis have been maddeningly accustomed to. With each repetition of the reconciliation mantra, rifts among the protagonists have widened. The time has long passed when a regurgitation of who should be doing what could pass off as enlightened policy on Nepal.
If Nepal did come up during Bush’s talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, then something of greater substance must actually have transpired. The American media might not be interested in digging deeper once Bush leaves Indian airspace. The Indian media, however, can be expected to come out with an abundance of leaks in the days head.
What seemed particularly intriguing was the silence Singh chose to maintain on Nepal during his joint news conference with Bush. The closest the Indian premier got to the kingdom was in describing how New Delhi and Washington were working together increasingly on global issues.
The historic agreement on nuclear technology American and Indian Sherpas managed to hammer out in time for the summit alone was probably not the reason why Singh chose to dispense with geography.
Perhaps the gentleman that remains in the leader of the world's most populous democracy considered it prudent not to burden Indo-Nepalese relations with needless words. What has been left unsaid, after all, over the last 13 months?
Or was there something more ominous? Bush prefaced his comment on Nepal with the following on Burma: "[W]e agree on the deplorable state of human rights in Burma, and all nations to seek the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."
Burma, one might recall, is where India has embarked on a policy of appeasement camouflaged as pragmatic engagement. Bush had nothing to lose from castigating the Burmese junta. The United States, and much of the western world, has been doing precisely that for the last 15 years, with the Burmese generals laughing it off.
India, on the other hand, has reason to be more sensitive. Once a staunch support of Aung San Suu Kyi, India has been quietly wooing the Burmese military leadership in recent years as part of its “Look” East policy.
Clearly, India is keen to engage Burma to offset China's influence in the region. New Delhi also wants Rangoon's help in combating rebels operating in the north-eastern states of India. Now, Burmese gas reserves have moved to the center of India’s energy policy.
Coming back to Nepal, was Prime Minister Singh reluctant to subvert what some perceive as a similarly subtle engagement with King Gyanendra’s regime, especially in the aftermath of Washington's scuttling of the New Delhi-anointed Seven-Party Alliance-Maoist accord?
A split-second pause by Bush's National Security Adviser Steve Hadley shed some light on the status of the Washington-New Delhi consensus on Nepal. “They [Bush and Singh] talked about Nepal and the need to both support the government against the Maoist rebels, but also -- or the Maoist terrorists -- but also the need for the King to reach out and include the political opposition.”
Hadley's transition from “rebels” to “terrorists” might have been an effort to remain consistent with the State Department (headed by Hadley’s former boss at the National Security Council Condoleezza Rice), which brands the Maoists as terrorists.
Or it may be a subtle reminder that Bush and Singh did not see eye to eye not only on the Maoists but also on the monarchy.
Such subtleties will no doubt be carefully monitored in China, as State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan prepares for his rescheduled visit to Nepal.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Tooth And Reconciliation

Pokhara's lakeside breeze has inspired a fresh round of royal consultations on Nepal's political future. Speculation is rife that King Gyanendra is looking for a prime minister. Most of the people the king began his latest brainstorming with were either members of his government or acknowledged royalists. They probably had rehearsed the lines they thought the monarch wanted to hear.
House of Representatives Speaker Taranath Ranabhat, who still remains a Nepali Congress member, appeared optimistic about a resumption of talks between the king and the agitating Seven-Party Alliance (SPA).
The SPA isn't terribly impressed by the monarch's olive branch, at least in public. Officially, opposition leaders see the king's gambit as an instance of too little too late. In reality, they still seem to be weighing the fallout from US Ambassador James F. Moriarty's admonitions against the SPA getting too comfy with the Maoists.
Some SPA leaders have unmasked their anxiety by insisting that the palace's reconciliation plea was only a scheme to split the opposition.
However, there has been one voice of moderation: Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. He has acknowledged the inevitability of holding talks with the king in rather stark terms. "Even to demand the king's abdication, we would have to meet with him," the former home minister proffered this week. Last week, he urged the Maoists – and the country – to understand American concerns in their right spirit.
Oli is understandably cautious. After his last major one-on-one with the monarch a couple of years ago, he had waxed eloquent on King Gyanendra's vision for the country. Before and following those remarks, Oli was widely expected to get a top slot in a palace-appointed cabinet. Loyalists insisted that Oli was entitled to nothing short of the premiership, all the while conceding that the deputy PM's job wouldn't be that bad.
Oli's optimism prompted his boss Madhav Kumar Nepal to cut short a foreign visit. Privately, Nepal was reported to have expressed his strong disapproval of Oli's freelancing. So the scale of the tremors Oli had set off within the UML was pretty obvious.
The cabinet line-up the palace announced after Oli's palace parleys did much to erode his image. He didn't get a place in power; worse, none of his loyalists did. Suddenly an embittered Oli was seen and heard in every forum ready to receive him.
This time, Madhav Nepal might not be able to step in. Theoretically, the UML general secretary's detention order, extended recently, could be revoked in the spirit of conciliation. The cabinet chaired by King Gyanendra would have to issue such an order.
But the monarch seems to have set his eyes equally on the other opposition front. Leading palace confidants have signaled that a palace-Maoist channel might already have been active.
Maoist supremo Prachanda evidently understands the implications of a palace alliance with non-communist elements of the mainstream opposition. Although he once called him a brave man, Prachanda today probably hates Sher Bahadur Deuba more than he does the monarch. Reason? Deuba's close ties with Nepali generals and the Americans. For Prachanda, the worst news of the year was perhaps Deuba's release from detention.
Having stuck his neck so far into the democratic republic bandwagon, the Maoist leader is probably still taking time off to explain to the rank and file why an abandonment (if that is what it is) of the original objective of establishing a Maoist republic has become such a prudent priority.
If they believe recent developments really portend the isolation of all communist forces in Nepal, Maoists leaders could easily think up a reason for striking a deal with the palace. Another reason why the SPA might want to make it to the finish line before the rebels. All eyes on Pokhara.